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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Light is on

The proverbial “aha” moment came last night, during the fourth class of the fiction writing workshop I’m taking through a grant at our public library.

The leader handed us four writing prompts, but as my eyes scrolled through each bulleted suggestion, I muttered “nope” and moved on. In the end though, I had to choose one. I stared at my blank page for a few minutes—then forced myself to begin scribbling.
When we put down our pens (or an I-Pad in one case), our leader asked how we felt about the four exercise choices. I admitted that I’d struggled. Each prompt included a situation that made me squirm in my seat—and in real life I tend to steer away from conflict the way our cat avoids the bathtub.

Yesterday, I learned if I want to become a fiction writer, I have to stop that.

I don’t I need to pick fights in real life, but I sure as heck better develop some doozy situations for my characters. To date, I have failed in that regard. I’m the first one to acknowledge that the two projects I’m working on are boring. Now I understand why. Description, yup, I suppose I’ve got that down; but if I look over the limited bulk of my work; I’ve never given a character an issue to deal with that was resolved with anything more than a minimum of angst. It's time to ratchet up the volume if you will. This means since I need to “become” my characters while I write about them, then I have to live through what they experience. For a practiced conflict-avoider, the intimidation factor just climbed to the top of the chart.

To quote our leader: “An author must provide high stakes moments in fiction that keep readers reading…There must be complications—messy, potentially disastrous circumstances where there is a lot at stake.” So far, all I’ve done is created and resolved situations in a way that would make a reader say “Meh.”

I didn’t sleep well last night. I was busy lighting houses on fire, killing off folks, introducing myself to alcoholics, ruining marriages and creating children from previous relationships. It doesn’t do much for a night’s rest, but if I challenge myself to live through it, someday it might make for good fiction.


If you happen to be looking for writing prompts, here are the four from last night (I chose #1): 
  • A man considers shoplifting a gift for his girlfriend while she browses in handbags.
  • A woman hides in a preschool so she can keep an eye on her three-year-old
  • A girl comes home for Thanksgiving, doing everything she can not to tell her parents she’s quit college
  • A boy tries to get his parents out of the house before the teacher calls to tell them he punched a boy at recess.


Monday, March 28, 2011


The calendar says spring; but where we live, the hourglass sifts the remains of winter. We light a cinnamon-scented candle, start a crackling fire; eat a hearty dinner and finish it off with a filling Apple Brown Betty.

But the clues exist. In the back yard, green shoots push through the earth—tulip bulbs, planted too deep. They never bloom but thrust their pointers to remind me of what could have been, what can be, although the early morning thermometer reads 29 degrees and in spite of gloves my fingers go numb on my way to the grocery store.

Sunday, smoke wafted across the street from the brush my husband burned—wagon-loads of broom branches; supple pine and hard oak yanked off by scouring winds over the last three months. Earlier, he took the tarp off the sailboat. He stores it elsewhere, so I didn’t see; but could imagine the unveiling, green plastic lifting on the stiff breeze, rising up like a billowing flag heralding the spring work to come—yard clean-up and planting, painting the boat bottom, washing and waxing and compounding.

Less than two months until the phlox riots pink and purple over the granite slabs in the back garden; until tomato seedlings sway in ceramic pots, until the boat parts the waters and ripples her way to the mooring. Sooner then that, I’ll sit in an open spot on the back stoop with my eyes closed and wait for my body to come back to me. There the sun will infuse my skin, spread tentacles of warmth and finger its way down deep to melt the frozen core.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday by the Sea

By May we will have forgotten the effects of the pounding winter ocean.

Today though, on a sunny day; not at all like spring, I braved the 37 degrees plus wind-chill to visit the sea.  I stared out my car windshield to the teal water, blasted the heat and tried to employ enough imagination for the billowing cumulus and the hard-packed sand to convince me it was summer.

But I couldn’t tune out the sound of the front-end loader beeping as it plowed mountains of sand from where the sea had deposited it in the parking lot. When I arrived, the driver was a rolling a telephone pole back toward its usual resting place at the edge of the sand—where beachgoers sit to remove shoes or watch the waves pour in. One of our many storms heaved that pole like a piece of driftwood to the other end of the rutted parking lot.

During our Boxing Day storm, fencing strung between the water and the dunes crumpled under the spume of ocean; the remaining posts spent the rest of the winter, uselessly leaning in competing directions.

Amid the mess though, someone found time for a laugh.

Happy Friday folks! Hope you have wonderful weekend plans.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Game Delay

Yesterday was a scheduled day off from the rigors of the cheese shop. I woke up anticipating a morning dedicated to my mushrooming scribe and after brewing a brilliant cup of strong coffee, I sat down at the computer. Though my major project, on which I have written approximately 500 words in the last week beckoned, no, make that, hollered at me, I picked up where I left off on my next South Shore Living Post. Writing for SSL is kind of a loosey-goosey arrangement; but I promised a post every two weeks and darn if I’m going to miss a deadline. So, though my inclination pulled me elsewhere, I waded back in like a wrestler and picked up my opponent, spun him over the head and slammed him on the floor. Then I lost my grip and found myself head-locked by the competition.

That sums up how I feel with the SSL topic I have chosen; like I’m dancing on rubber mats, trying to get a clinch on this piece. For a few minutes, it’s in my grasp so I squeeze and wrap my leg around it trying to trip it to the ground, but just when I get close; it maneuvers a foot behind me and forces me down instead.

We were at a stalemate when the phone rang—the Doctor’s office calling me to remind me of an  appointment I was already late for and telling me if I rushed right down, they’d see me anyway.

Whew. Match called as a result of darkness. We resume play again today, when if all goes as planned, I'll finally pin that sucker.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Gift

Sure it's a cliche, but once in a while, a picture (or two) is worth a  thousand words.  In this case, after a relentless winter from which deposits of snow still linger, these unexpected discoveries on the first day of spring are at least worth 998 or 999.

  Posted by Picasa

Friday, March 18, 2011

First Line Fun

So much responsibility rests on a first sentence.

When seeking a good read, I may pull a book off a shelf based on a recommendation, or because a creative title calls out. Sometimes an unexpected graphic from the cover forces me to pause, or a brief summary written by a bookstore owner entices. But once I’m holding the thing in my hands, the first line had better vacuum me in like an Electrolux or I tuck it back with its brothers. There are too many good books out there to waste time wading into a story.

That thought occurred to me yesterday at the library, when I put down one novel on my TBR list because I hated the first sentence, but then picked up a different book, because the initial words compelled me. With that in mind, this morning, I conducted an experiment:

Taking ten books from our family room shelf today, I read each first sentence, which I’ve include below. Some are brief, some are longer then I expected; each has their own style, but in all cases, the words raised questions, made me ask, "What’s next?" and flooded me with a compelling need to know.

Here is the sampling:

“If the earth were flat, New Zealand would have fallen off a long time ago, it’s that far from Ireland. Leon Uris, Redemption

"She heard a knocking, and then a dog barking." The Pilot’s Wife, Anita Schreve

"Women on their own run in Alice’s Family." Pigs in Heaven, Barbara Kingsolver

“At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew in circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.” The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.” The Sun also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

“The Senior Partner studied the resume for the hundredth time and again found nothing he disliked about Mitchell Y. McDeere, at least not on paper." The Firm, John Grisham

“Mama left her red satin shoes in the middle of the road.” Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, Beth Hoffman

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. Gone with the Wind; Margaret Mitchell

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

“Caney switched on the light over his bed and reached for the last of last night’s coffee…one cold oily swallow at the bottom of a chipped stoneware mug.” The Honk and Holler Opening Soon, Billie Letts.

Oh, and here’s the one I haven’t read; the first sentence from the book I selected yesterday, in place of one on my list:

“Now that I have died, I see all and know all and there is nothing I can do about it.” The Other Side of Air, Jeanne Braselton.  See why I checked it out?

What’s the first line of your favorite book?

Thursday, March 17, 2011


This is my entry for the Where Sky Meets Ground St. Patrick's Day Blogfest and Alexia Chamerblain's St. Patrick's Day Blogfest  that I found via Colene Murphy. (I know, two for the price of one).  The idea came to me via a writing prompt from the fiction writing workshop I'm taking this month.  The promp was: "Arriving late to your daughter's wedding."  Click on the links above to read more St. Patrick's Day fiction.

The useless alarm clock lay in pieces where it landed after bouncing off the wall.

Grabbing at the bedside table, he stumbled out of bed, swearing as a half-empty Guinness clattered and rolled off the side. Limping around the puddle forming on the rug, he felt his way down the windowless corridor to the bathroom, dunked his head under the faucet, rubbed dry with the graying towel hanging next to the sink, squirted toothpaste onto his tongue and rinsed before lurching back down the hall for the tuxedo. As he stabbed onyx studs at the cuffs of a starched dress shirt, the hiss of air breaks echoed out front.

“Shite,” he muttered, struggling into his pants. Stuffing bare feet into a pair of rented leather dress shoes, he grabbed the jacket and tie and ran for the door, opening it to a blur of white and yellow as the 9:15 local hurtled passed. “Sweet Mary!” he moaned. “It’s Saturday. There won’t be another for an hour.” Stuffing the bow tie  into his pocket, he jerked down the steps, turned and trotted backwards, waving a raised thumb at passing cars.

If only he hadn’t promised.  But those liquid blue eyes had peered up the same way they had when she was a wee one, and she’d pleaded. “Just for tonight Da. Would you lay off the sauce so you can walk your only girl down the aisle in the morning? After that it’s back to the pub with you for all I care, but I’m begging. Could you do it right this once?” God help him. If that sour pickle of an ex-wife Margaret had asked, he would have spit, but he’d never been one to say no to Bethie.

Poor Bethie he thought, as he struggled down the street. T'is her fault. After all, she's the one who arranged his ride home with Her-Boy-Tom's university buddies.  She should have figured they would want to continue the celebration at the pub.  True, he could have walked to his room from there, but when Her-Boy-Tom’s friends invited him in for a drop, well, wouldn't it have been rude not to partake in their hospitality?  Of course Tom himself would have known enough to see me home first, but he wasn't there now was he?  Such a nice young man, but not available to put the chains on his soon-to-be-Father-in-Law on the eve before his own wedding, and that's the shame of it, I suppose.

The bank clock on the corner read 9:35. Still time to make it if some blessed soul would stop and offer a ride. If only his damn head wasn’t yammering like a smithy’s anvil. As he stumbled down the street, sweat slicked his face. The odor emanating from his armpits put him in mind of the rug at the pub after closing time. “Just keep going,” he muttered out loud as he peered into Blaine's Hair Emporium..  The clock inside read 9:45. Brides never go down the aisle on time, right? Surely Bethie will wait for her old Dad?

Five minutes later, he wrapped an arm around a parking meter and bent over, wheezing. Far in the distance, the Celtic flag flying above the doorway of the Irish pub they’d stopped at the night before lifted in the wind. “I know! It’s St. Patrick’s Day. It's an early open. Someone will give me a ride to the church,” he croaked, forcing his faltering legs to move. “Just for a ride. That’s all.” A blister stung his sockless heel. Kicking off his shoe, he reached for it and pitched forward, landing palms first on the sidewalk where for a startled moment, he rested a cheek on the cool cement before forcing himself to stand.  He shuffled the last hundred yards to the pub holding one shoe.

Tugging at the tarnished brass handle mounted on the oak door as the bells from the town hall chimed, the shaking man paused at the entrance, allowing his bloodshot eyes to adjust to the dim light.  “Billy Boy!” Jimmy the publican called. “What are you doing looking so hot and bothered this early? Thought you'd still be sleeping off last night.  Here’s a cold one for the cure.”  The clock above Jimmy's bald head read 10:01.

As the foam-topped schooner glinting on the mahogany bar reached out its magnet arms and pulled him forward, he shook his head and uttered a deep sigh, whispering: "What's to be done?" 

Gazing at the pub name etched in glass over the colored liquor bottles stacked behind the bar, Bill O'Reilly noted the irony before taking a deep breath, raising his glass and offering a salute to the sign: “Here’s to ‘O’Reilly’s Daughter.’”

I'm not a short story expert and it's all about learning these days.  I'd appreciate any objective criticism you might care to offer...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

24 Hour Delay...and Japan

I'm delaying today's blog post until tomorrow, when I include a rare bit of fiction as I participate in JP's (Where Sky Meet's Ground) St. Patrick's Day Blogfest.

Recently, through the efforts of the same JP above, I joined a newly-formed writing group...my first, so a milestone of sorts.  One of our members, Claire, (Points of Claire-ification) lives in Japan--thankfully, inland from where the tsunami hit.  Claire has included some information on her blog explaining to how to assist that struggling country.  Claire herself will be donating $2.00 US for anyone participating in her upcoming book give away.  So, if you want to help out, please click over and check out Claire.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Another Beginning

In corporate life, I attended countless workshops—enough to know that the first agenda item for the beginning class of my writing workshop last week would be for each attendee to offer an introduction, plus a snippet about his or her writing background. It says something, I suppose, that I wasn’t worried about my dearth of skills as a writer, or exposing what I don’t know about the techniques required to develop compelling fiction.  What concerned me was coming up with an "elevator speech" (and just for the record, I despise the term, but admit it works) that describes how I got to where I am today.

The workshop is taking place in a meeting room at our public library that also serves as a gallery for local artists. Sitting in a horseshoe, surrounded by oil paintings of music celebrities, John Lennon, Lady Gaga and an open mouthed Adam Lambert, the folks across from me launched into summaries while I twiddled with my pencil. For a moment, I dropped into my old corporate “be prepared” persona and contemplated jotting a note I could refer to, before deciding it would be too obvious.  Instead I shifted in my seat.

Across from me, a housewife with three young kids who’d taken courses with our leader previously, admitted that she wasn’t currently writing anything, but hoped this class would jog her to. A grey haired man in a blue wool sweater explained that his layoff from his position as an English teacher motivated him to take time to write. A soft-voiced woman in a tweed blazer looked down as she confessed that she’d never written before, but had stories in her head she wanted tell. Beside her, another attendee giggled as she shared that she wrote technical abstracts for her job that did nothing to inspire her.

One by one the people in that room portrayed themselves in steady voices, while I crossed and uncrossed my legs and tapped my feet under the table. When the meticulously groomed woman beside me explained that she’d kept journals for years and was convinced there were stories she could mine from there, my armpits prickled.

Then it was my turn--and it always comes down to this.

Who am I?

I had to clear my throat before I could force out that I’d been laid of from a company after 23 years, started writing the next day, and had raced to the library to sign up for the workshop as soon it appeared on the schedule last fall because of a desire to learn to dig deeper, to challenge myself further, to stop “surface writing.” As the leader moved on, I peered down at the pages in front of me, visualizing the “D” I’d have given myself on that intro.

Over the last two years, I've dared to call myself a writer. Yet I failed to describe the suffocating need that swamps me like a full-moon tide, the phrases that pop and bounce between my ears, the cavernous hole that opens below me when I contemplate not creating through words.

It could have been worse though. The last person to speak admitted that she hadn’t been able to tell her husband she was coming.

News Flash:  Carol Valdez Miller has an agent!!!!  Carol has been one of the most kind and encouraging writers that I have met via the blogosphere, and that comment doesn't even touch  on her talent level or brilliant sense of humor.  I just love it when good things happen to good people!  To celebrate this momentous event, Carol, (and about a million of her bloggy friends) are holding epic contests.  Click here to learn the details, and what ever you do, head on over and wish Carol a huge, huge CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Lobster: Eating the Experience

Happy Friday all.  You can find today's blog post "Lobster: Eating the Experience" here, at South Shore Living.

Reminder:  if you want to participate in JP's Second Annual St. Patrick's Day Blog Fest, you can click here - Where Sky Meets Ground.

I attended the first session of my fiction writing workshop this week, left and started working on a short story. Can you say "inspired?" 

How did the your writing go this week?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Read it and Eat

I've written about this book previously, but wanted to try my hand at a book review, so please forgive the redundancy.

Until recently, I’m not sure I comprehended that food writing is a genre, but over the last six months the chef/half-owner of the shop where I work has recommended several talented authors. Always one for a succulent read, I dipped into his list, starting with James Beard award winning writer Ruth Reichl, formerly a New York Times food critic, as well as the Editor and Chief of Gourmet Magazine until it closed in 2009.

Tender to the Bone-Growing up at the Table, Reichl's memoir, is billed as: “…the story of a life defined, determined and enhanced in equal measure by a passion for food, unforgettable people, and by the love of tales well told. Beginning with her mother, the notorious food-poisoner known as the Queen of the Mold…”

From the onset, Reichl's stories swallowed me whole, starting with her tales of growing up in New York City with a manic-depressive mother, who exhibited “iron stomach” tendencies and was “unafraid of rot,” through her surprise exile (orchestrated by said mother) to an all French boarding school in Montreal (Reichl didn't speak French), her time at the University of Michigan, followed by Berkley, where she lived in a commune, working in a collectively owned organic restaurant before becoming a food critic for New West Magazine. Along the way, the author infuses the book with gulping mouthfuls of humor as she discusses her memories around well-loved dishes, the recipes for which she includes throughout:

“Aunt Birdie wasn’t really related to me; she was my father’s first wife’s mother. But she desperately wanted to be a grandmother, so when I was born she went to the hospital, introduced herself to my mother, and applied for the job. She was well past eighty, and this looked like her last chance…"
Whether it is through her description of traveling to North Africa with her college roommate, or exploring the family owned food shops in lower Manhattan in the early 1970’s (“Some days I would leave the loft to get a stick of butter or a loaf of bread and be gone for hours…”), Reichl demonstrates her skill as an extraordinary writer, evoking her memories with a richness layered in vivid scenery, and the spices bestowed by the characters who inhabited her early years.

You don’t have like cooking to enjoy the stories in Tender at the Bone, though it will add to the experience. As a food lover however, I stabbed at the book with my fork and ran my tongue through each luscious bite—so captivated by Reichl’s words that like a starving reader, I forgot to stop and take a drink along the way.

Tender to the Bone
Growing up at the Table

Friday, March 4, 2011

Odds, Ends and Links

Sign up for JP's (Where Sky Meets Ground) St. Patrick's Day Blog Fest here.

I forced myself away from blog writing to focus on other things this week. When it came down to generating a post this morning, all I could think of were snippets from the past few days, so that’s what you are getting:

For example,

I have a habit of ducking when inside a garage and the door goes down because fifteen years ago, in our garage, a spring snapped and went flying. Last week, my sister saw me bobbing my head while running out of her garage as she closed the door, and teased me until I explained why. Five days later, another spring on our garage door broke. I’ll keep ducking, thank you very much.

When the cat claws the door to the bedrooms in the middle of the night in an attempt to break it down for no apparent reason, there probably is one--such as the coyote standing on the back patio sniffing the wind (or the cat) early the next morning.

If you stare out the window before church on Sunday morning moaning about how the absentee next door neighbor will never cut down his dead trees lining your property, be careful what you wish for. He may, four days later, have a crew cut them all down, with the exception of the ugliest broken one, which he will leave standing. 

Success is in the little things—like being told after six months of trying, that the prosciutto you cut on the meat slicer was the perfect thickness. Humor me. It’s not easy.

With that said: here is some interesting reading I came upon this week.

From Writer’s Digest: 8 Ways to Write a 5-Star Chapter 1

Anne Gallagher over at the Piedmont Writer included the following link in her post today:
The ten mistakes writes don’t see (But can easily Fix When they do).

Jodie Renner of JodieRennerEditing lined to here today for a bunch of great articles on writing fiction. 

Oh, and this is my 455th blog post.  That's a cool number, don't you think?

Happy Friday to all. What helpful reading have you found this week?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Life Lessons

Things I’ve learned today:

The grass IS always greener over the septic tank. Well, in our case, the earth is warmer over the septic tank, which remains the only place in the yard without snow.

Even though March has arrived, check the wind-chill before attempting an early walk by the ocean.

Writing for a real deadline (another blog) ends up being harder then writing on a self-imposed deadline (your own blog).

It’s safe to save written work to both internal and external drives. When doing so though, make sure to save the newest version to both locations, thereby eliminating the potential of spending two hours editing the wrong document. (Wait a minute...I deleted that phrase yesterday...)

If you don’t follow the suggestion above, be aware that massive confusion may ensue, as you click back and forth between the new version and the now-edited-previous-version in an attempt to retain the best writing from both.

In the worst case, you may end up discarding the now-newest, super-revised version you need, and saving the one you don’t.

If so, cursing will not help.

I’m just sayin'

A unique opportunity to combine writing expertise with the skills gained during a previous career through what could  (if ALL the stars align) become a regular freelance gig; is an acceptable cause for excitement. But trust me; no matter how well your resume matches the specifications, the phone won't ring five minutes after you click send.

Well, it might, but it will be a telemarketer.

It’s not very good for you, but sometimes a baloney sandwich (with mayo, lettuce and sprouts) is the perfect remedy to a challenging morning.

What kind of writing (or other) challenges have you faced today? How did you surmount them?